The curse of the uninformed columnist in the time of Covid

If you want to know about how the coronavirus infection spreads, or what a spike protein is, or how the new-style RNA vaccines work, skip Toby Young’s column, turn off talkRADIO and read the science reporting, says Kim Thomas.

Responsible reporting takes a lot more effort than sitting at your desk and spewing out whichever ill-informed theory has popped into your head that day…

It was the title of Matthew Parris’s Spectator column, just before Christmas, that caught my eye: “My cure for the common cold.” As we all know, there is no cure for the common cold, so what was Parris’s secret? He was, he tells us, “vaguely sceptical about theories of ‘catching’ things or how not to” until 20 years ago when he spent four months on an island in the Subantarctic inhabited only by 39 scientists and soldiers, with no contact with the outside world.  During this time, Parris informed us, not one person caught a cold or flu. 

Then comes the big insight: “After that, I was utterly persuaded that colds and flu are contracted mostly through proximity to someone else suffering from them.”

You might be as flabbergasted as I was – not by the revelation that nobody caught a cold, but that it is possible for an educated person to reach the age of 50 (as Parris then was) without acquiring a basic familiarity with the germ theory of disease. 

Parris’s cheerful admission of ignorance hasn’t, however, stopped him from sharing his views on the pandemic. Back in May, he revealed that his partner, Julian, had advised him: “You’re not an epidemiologist. Nobody’s interested in your theories.” (I like the sound of Julian.) Nonetheless, Parris went ahead to set out his theory that the reason rates of Covid-19 were so low in London was that lots of people had developed a resistance to the disease, even though they hadn’t caught it. Well, we know how that panned out. 

He is far from the only columnist out of his depth. As Rod Liddle recently wrote, in an uncharacteristic moment of self-awareness: “Spare a thought for us [columnists], please, doomed to write week after week from a position of total and utter pig ignorance, required to address issues of scientific import equipped with nothing but our arts or social science degrees.”

Our national newspapers are full of pundits whose “utter pig ignorance” doesn’t deter them from pontificating, week-in, week-out, about the virus. There’s Toby Young, who, back in June, claimed that epidemiologists were “gnashing their teeth” in fury at the virus’s disappearance, before coming out with the now infamous prediction that  “there will be no ‘second spike’ – not now, and not in the autumn either. The virus has melted into thin air. It’s time to get back to normal.”

Or there’s Allison Pearson, with her bizarre claim (on Twitter) that “Corona doesn’t infect children”, and her statement that she was pleased her son had caught the virus because apart from a vaccine, which was “unlikely to show up any time soon” (ha!), “allowing Covid to run through the healthy population is the only way out of this loathsome epidemic which kills our old and murders the futures of our youth.”

Then there’s Lionel Shriver, who believes that the relatively low death toll from coronavirus demonstrates that lockdown isn’t necessary, rather than the more likely explanation that it is lockdown that has kept the death rate low. Shriver’s take is rather like complaining that all the money you spent on securing your house was wasted because no one broke in. 

And let’s have an honourable mention for the talkRADIO broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer, erroneously claiming that Public Health England was combining the Covid-19 and flu statistics to “make the Covid numbers look worse than they really are.” That followed Hartley-Brewer’s equally inaccurate claim that 90% of positive Covid tests were false. 

If we’re being charitable, we could say it’s not surprising that journalists get it wrong. After all, Covid-19 is a new illness, and there is still a great deal we don’t know about it. But that is all the more reason to be cautious, rather than confident, in making claims about the virus. Unfortunately, this view is anathema to the kind of journalist whose stock-in-trade is making sweeping judgements about everything from Brexit to free school meals. 

The pandemic has cruelly exposed the limitations of this approach. You have probably heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people of low ability in a particular field overestimate their own competence, while people of high ability tend to underestimate it. A prestigious education (Parris and Pearson attended Cambridge, Young and Hartley-Brewer Oxford, while Shriver is an alumna of Columbia) doesn’t make you immune to this effect: in fact, it probably gifts you a misplaced confidence in your own cleverness. The ability to write a first-class essay on John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility surely – they must imagine – makes you just as qualified to discuss epidemiology as those plodders who have merely spent 30 years working as epidemiologists. 

We are almost all of us susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, outside our own specialisms – which is precisely why we should turn our attention to those journalists engaged in responsible reporting. During the last 11 months of this pandemic, there has been an abundance of excellent journalism from writers with modest public profiles: people like the Guardian’s science correspondent Ian Sample, or Tom Whipple at the Times, or Phil Hammond, Private Eye’s MD. These journalists, and others like them, have talked to the experts, read scientific papers and explained the virus to us in language that the layperson can understand. 

It’s true that this kind of journalism takes a lot more effort than sitting at your desk and spewing out whichever ill-informed theory has popped into your head that day. It’s also true that it’s unlikely to turn its practitioners into household names. But if you want to know about how infection spreads, or what a spike protein is, or how the new-style RNA vaccines work, skip Toby Young’s column, turn off talkRADIO and read the science reporting. You’ll almost certainly end up better informed. 

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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